I Got Here Too Late: A Photo Essay

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I’ve been taking pictures for considerably longer than I can remember. My grandma swears up and down that when I was 6 years old, I’d make her drive me to the Amtrak station so I could take pictures of trains departing. She said I’d steal my dad’s Polaroid and ask to take pictures every time I came over.

I still take pictures now, and I even sold a print for a hundred dollars last year, which makes me one of the 7 or 8 richest photographers living today. So naturally I never believed her. The narrative was too on-the-nose; too convenient. I figured I did that once, on the way home from someplace else, and she padded the numbers to get in on the ground floor of my bourgeoning artistic career. I mean, come on. That’s Grade A press kit material. It’s too good.

But then something wonderful happened. I was clearing out some old boxes last summer and found all the pictures I took as a kid. Then it came back to me, like a hammer to the head. It was all true. She drove a ’77 Granada, and there were so many cigarette burns in the upholstery that the interior was all covered with quilts, and hey, here’s 4,000 pictures to prove it all happened. I made my feeble grandma drive me across town in 105 degree heat so I could take pictures of trains. Pictures that have no resale value whatsoever. (It wasn’t my fault though. A six year old boy is just a highlight reel of his parents’ defects.)

The pictures were fun to have around, serving as concrete evidence that I was a six year old once. They fell into four genres: pictures of interesting dirt formations, little stick drawings in the dirt, dirt clods of memorable size, glass shards in dirt; anything to do with dirt, I had the market cornered. That was 20% of the portfolio. Then there were pictures of La Rosa carts, a Bakersfield business that sells fruit bars and ice cream out of these little push-carts with bells on them. That was another 20%.

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Then there were pictures of trains, which took up the whole remaining 60%.

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I remember doing none of this. It’s all gone except for the upholstery in the Granada and how hot the seatbelt would get. But it’s nice to have the evidence around, so I can quantify how much I’ve matured in my artistic career (zero).

So I owe my career to my grandma putting up with me. Not photography though. As much as a hundred dollars may seem like a career to my peers in the picture taking community, it’s actually not. I mean the writing. Like I’m doing now.

See, here’s how my writing process works. I spend all week wondering what I can write about without inviting any self-hatred. This seems like every single thing on earth, until on Tuesdays I find one or two things on earth that seem borderline acceptable. Then by Friday I’m done, and I’m absolutely positive that I have written for the last time and I’ll be in jail by the first of the next month. Then I’ll sit down at the desk to write with no end game, just to prove the muscles still work, and find I’m complaining about somebody I’ve never even heard of, like Lena Dunham. Or I’ll write poems about how bus stops can be, wait for it, get ready, here it comes, this is the end, you’re all going down with me – sad.

There’s only one recovery ritual that works with any degree of reliability. I grab my camera and get in my truck and point it somewhere I haven’t been before. I stop when I find a place I probably won’t see again. Usually it’s a place that feels old, out of time, cut off from the city or the highway. The sorts of places you vaguely remember seeing as a kid, or in a dream, and when you try to find it as an adult it’s not there, or you don’t know where to start looking. Places where it feels like you went through a door and it was suddenly 1989 again.

Sometimes it’s a mountain town. Sometimes it’s a strip mall that lost to a Wal-Mart a couple miles away. Sometimes it’s a grocery store that went out of business and nobody ever did anything with the property. But I usually find at least one place where I briefly suspect I’m the last person who will ever walk there. “There was something here once, but nobody told me about it and its remnants are out-of-focus now. I got here too late.”

Then I get home and go through the pictures, which are all right there on my computer screen, and I didn’t imagine taking them in some sepia-tinted dream about loss, and I’m ready to go back to work again.

Here are a few photos from one of those drives, where I went out looking for nothing in November of 2014. The shots aren’t masterpieces, and a few of them are upsetting (with rot comes swastikas and at some point there’s a dishonesty in shooting around them), but taken together I think they capture a certain mood that’s worth capturing.

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